The story behind Washington’s elaborate Temperance Fountain

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Henry D. Cogswell was one of those guys who got rich then decided the world should notice him. And it did, though perhaps not in the way he intended.

Here in Washington we know the name Cogswell because of the elaborate drinking fountain he forced upon the city in 1884. It stands at Seventh Street NW and Indiana Avenue, just off Pennsylvania Avenue, where it represents, according to the Historic American Buildings Survey, “a rather obvious and expressive symbolic monument to one aspect of social reform.”

That aspect of social reform was the eradication of intoxicating beverages. Among Cogswell’s obsessions was teetotalism. His sculptural gift is known as the Temperance Fountain.

Though it doesn’t quench thirsts today, intertwined bronze stylized dolphins once spewed water from their mouths under a four-sided stone canopy, each side of which was chiseled with a different worthy quality: FAITH, HOPE, CHARITY, TEMPERANCE. The granite canopy is surmounted by a bronze heron, a bird that spends much of its life in the water.

The fountain is symbolic of more than just clean living, however. It represents something that’s common in Washington: a dubious gift — a work of art, a building, a museum, a monument — promoted by a wealthy person. The city didn’t really want it, at least not in the form Cogswell originally intended.

Henry D. Cogswell was a New Englander who frankly had a pretty lousy childhood. His mother died when he was 8. It was decided the family was too large to accommodate Henry. At age 10, he was left in the care of his blind grandfather, who promptly died.

Young Henry then went to work in a cotton mill. Eventually, he became a teacher and then a dentist. In 1849, he headed to California to seek his fortune. This he found not in the earth, but in the mouth. After practicing dentistry in a tent in the gold fields, he opened an office in San Francisco, its location advertised by a huge gold-colored molar that hung outside.

The money Cogswell earned pulling teeth — and through his various dental inventions — was invested in San Francisco real estate. He became a millionaire.

Many millionaires become philanthropists. That’s what Cogswell wanted to become, though according to a lacerating 1900 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, his “intolerable egotism defeated its own ends.” He was, wrote the paper, determined to “place the perpendicular pronoun first”: that is, the word “I.”

For Cogswell, it was all me, me, me. He would donate money to a cause then demand it back if the stringent conditions he requested were not met. In one case, he wanted to claw back some real estate he’d given to the University of California for a dental school that was to be named after him.

His lawyer was successful in breaking the terms of the donation — then Cogswell allegedly stiffed her on her bill.

Temperance was the cause that most energized Cogswell, and it is for his role as a “fountaineer” that he is most remembered today. Like many others, Cogswell believed drunkenness was a threat to the nation. He decided trading booze for water was a way to save the citizenry.

Cogswell created water fountains of various designs that he offered to cities across the country. They weren’t exactly free. Though Cogswell would provide the fountain itself, he required cities to pay for the fountain’s base, hook it up to the water supply, add gas-powered lights and maintain it.

According to historian Frederick C. Moffatt, writing in the Winterthur Portfolio, about half the roughly 40 cities Cogswell approached agreed to take his fountains. These included New York; Boston, Rochester, N.Y., Pawtucket, R.I., San Francisco and the District.

Washington was among cities that objected to the basic design: a bronze figure of a man proffering a cup. That man appeared to be Cogswell himself. In 1883, the District rejected this as personal advertising.

To refute the accusation, Cogswell submitted several photographs of himself to the city’s commissioners. Wrote The Post: “This, far from refuting the idea, makes it appear more obvious.” (In fact, Cogswell did sit for multiple photographs as a guide for the foundry.)

The design was altered, and the crane-topped fountain was installed in 1884. It is one of the few Cogswell fountains that survive. Some of the others were torn down by crowds offended by their aesthetics or by their hectoring tone.

The D.C. fountain was supposed to provide chilled water, produced by a system that involved packing ice into a tank in the base. This mechanism broke after a few months. The Post joked that as this was a failure, the city would be testing “the feasibility of turning it into a hot coffee tank for cold weather uses.”

Any billionaire want to sponsor that?

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